Change starts with me

In May, during the Tools for Change KL 2012 conference, hosted by IofC Malaysia, participants could choose one out of five possible afternoon workshops offering skills to become ‘catalysts for change’. The options were ‘Passion in the Workplace’, ‘Leadership’, ‘Creators of Peace’, ‘Inter-cultural Communications’ and finally, ‘The Choice’ run by the Arbinger Institute.

I chose ‘The Choice’, which plumbed the depths of something we in IofC often refer to as ‘change must start with me ‘. I learnt about the Austrian philosopher Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue based on the distinction between the ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-It’ relationships. These represent two different attitudes. One is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity while the other is one of separateness and detachment. It is a choice.

I was reminded of an early experience of change that continues to mark my life. I had developed a deep hatred and resentment towards a relative. When I reflected on the moral standard of ‘Absolute Love’, I felt that there was nothing that I wanted to do. I could not see any good coming out of the relationship. The last thing I wanted was to repair and restore this relationship.

I sought advice from an elderly, wise Scotsman whose story of change had both amused me and challenged my sense of courage. As I shared my desire to let things be, he asked, ‘How wrong do you think this person was?’ I replied, ‘99%’. He asked me to reflect on my 1% rather than focus on the other person’s 99%. This was so logical that I was challenged to try.

The Choice course opened a window in my heart. At the very moment when I focused on my own wrongs I was able to convert what had become an ‘I-It’ relationship to an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. When I thought about things I had done and said about this person behind his back I felt convicted. Instead of the 99% blame I had assigned to him, I saw the wonderful things he had done for me. This helped me to take responsibility for what was more than my 1%. Later when I met him, it was a moment of mutual apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I realised what it is to be in ‘the box’ (an Arbinger analogy) and how this shapes my reactions. When I’m trapped in ‘the box’, all that I can see are ‘more boxed in reactions’. The course helped me to understand how one can emerge from such ‘boxed’ situations and how being ‘out of the box’ reveals responses that engender positive relationships.

‘The Choice’ facilitator was a self-effacing and youthful looking Danish gentleman who shared candidly from his own family and work experiences. It was during the second day that many of the participants had their ‘aha’ experience. The penny dropped with the realization that this was all about Me and all that is within MY control. ‘Change starts with me’ turns the searchlight inwards and brings fresh light on all my relationships. I feel a sense of our common humanity only when I understand what my emotions are doing to me at each moment. As I take responsibility, I begin to develop compassion for the state of the other and am liberated from being the victim.

The workshop highlighted for me how we can humanize ourselves and others every time we take responsibility for our own actions/reactions, whether from a position of weakness or strength. Taking responsibility is powerful.

We humans emerge into maturity with various hang-ups such as attitudes of deep hurt, jealously, injury, being victimised or resentment. This emotional baggage then defines the individual in his or her undertakings. We are conditioned by dysfunctionality in other people and we get trapped in emotions, attitudes and behaviours that continue to colour and infect all our relationships. For those who rely only on the rational mind and the external world, these matters can seem dark and challenging. For others who begin to develop a capacity to look at themselves deeply and start with themselves, a window of compassion can open up on strained relationships.

‘Change starting with oneself’ is more than just a chronological position of where one starts. It is powerful when reflected upon on a daily basis. While I understood this at one level, the issues of being caught by the ego or being enslaved by reactions have blinded me in many instances to a conduct and behaviour inconsistent with my convictions. It is said that our beliefs do not project us as a better person but our conduct and behaviour does.

This paradox is resolved at the level of our Being. This is where one synthesizes the ‘I-thou’ and the ‘I-it’ dialogue in one’s relationships. By accepting the Thou, I see humanity in the other person and as I take full responsibility for my present emotions and reactions, I liberate myself from the clutches of the other.

I have reflected much on a quotation from the programme, ‘There is something deeper than behaviour that others can sense – something that, when wrong, undercuts the effectiveness of even the most outwardly “correct” behaviour.’ This is apt when one does good things out of wrong motives.

‘The Choice’ was a course about honesty and transparency born out of a connection with Being – ‘a way of being’ which is deeper and more important than behaviour. As we develop the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, we recognize our self deceptions and move from our depth of being. We can all learn fresh lessons and share rich experiences. I found this a most refreshing and meaningful programme that has greatly assisted me in enhancing the quality of all my relationships.

For any who want to be effective catalysts for change, Arbinger’s two bestselling books Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace are a must read. These may inspire you to also read, Bonds that make us Free by Dr C Terry Warner, founder of the Arbinger Institute.